Nav: Home

As fins evolve to help fish swim, so does the nervous system

April 10, 2017

The sensory system in fish fins evolves in parallel to fin shape and mechanics, and is specifically tuned to work with the fish's swimming behavior, according to new research from the University of Chicago. The researchers found these parallels across a wide range of fish species, suggesting that it may occur in other animals as well.

The study, published April 10, 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, combined measurements of fin shape from hundreds of specimens of the Labridae family with fin mechanical properties and neural responses recorded from eight different Labrid species, commonly known as wrasses. These measurements were then mapped on an evolutionary tree of 340 wrasses to determine how the mechanical properties and nervous systems of the fins evolved over time.

"As pectoral fins evolve different shapes, behaviors, and mechanical properties, we've shown that the sensory system is also evolving with them," said Brett Aiello, a PhD student in the Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, and the lead author of the study. "This allows the sensory system to be tuned to the different stimuli relevant to the locomotor behaviors and fin mechanics of different species."

When animals use appendages for movement, they rely on sensory feedback from those limbs to control motion. Nerves in the pectoral fins of fish detect the fin rays' position and how much they bend as they move through the water, which helps the fish sense speed and the relative position of their fins.

The shape of the fin affects how the fish will move too. Scientists use a number called aspect ratio (AR) to measure this shape. High AR means the fin is long and narrow, or more wing-like; low AR means the fin is broad or round, and more paddle-like. Wrasses with high AR, wing-like fins flap them to maximize efficiency and thrust as they propel themselves forward, while those with the broader, low AR, paddle-like fins use rowing movements to maneuver close to reef bottoms.

Aiello and his colleagues collected fin aspect ratio measurements from hundreds of Labrid species at the Field Museum, and combined that data with a genetic phylogeny of 340 Labrids developed by Mark Westneat, PhD, professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and co-author on the study. Using DNA from living fishes, Westneat constructed a family tree of relationships between these species, tracing how they evolved through time. The researchers then mapped the fin shape of each species on the phylogeny, allowing them to track fin evolution from their ancestral state to living species. The ancestral state reconstruction revealed patterns of convergent evolution, with high AR fins originating independently at least 22 times.

With this history of fin evolution in place, the researchers also tested the mechanical properties and sensory system sensitivity in the pectoral fins of four pairs of closely related Labrid species, one with low AR fins and one with independently evolved high AR fins. The team tested the sensory response by measuring the neural response from the pectoral fin nerves as they bent the fin, and then repeated the process, bending the fins a different amount each time.

What they found gave more clues about the utility of each kind of fin. The low AR, paddle-like fins tended to be more flexible, and the high AR fins were more stiff or rigid. But the sensory system of the wing-like, high AR fins was also more sensitive, meaning the fins were more responsive to a smaller magnitude of bending. Aiello said he believes that a more sensitive nervous system evolved in the high AR fins because it needed to be more responsive to smaller movements as the fish use these stiff, less flexible fins to swim.

The work is the product of collaboration across disciplines, a hallmark of the Organismal Biology and Anatomy program at UChicago. The resulting PNAS study could have been three separate papers: the archival research of specimens from the Field Museum, the genetic phylogeny, and the neurobiological study of the living species.

"Collaboration among scientists with different perspectives and expertise can take research in whole new directions," said Melina Hale, the William Rainey Harper Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and senior author of the study. "It is also a lot of fun because we learn about each other's fields. For experimentalists, like us, working with colleagues and natural history collections at the Field Museum has been particularly important as they bring key insights on evolution and biodiversity."

Besides giving biologists a better understanding of how fish have optimized their swimming mechanics, the results of the study could also be useful to engineers developing underwater autonomous vehicles. The propulsion systems of these devices need to be both efficient and responsive, and there are perhaps no better designs to copy than those perfected through evolution over millions of years.

"A lot of the problems that engineers run into are similar to the type of things that animals have already evolved solutions to over time," Aiello said. "If we start to look more towards bio-inspired technology and incorporating some of the things we see in nature in our engineered devices, I think it will help advance and solve some of these problems more quickly."
-end-
About the University of Chicago Medicine

The University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences is one of the nation's leading academic medical institutions. It comprises the Pritzker School of Medicine, a top 10 medical school in the nation; the University of Chicago Biomedical Sciences Division; and the University of Chicago Medical Center, which recently opened the Center for Care and Discovery, a $700 million specialty medical facility. Twelve Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine have been affiliated with the University of Chicago Medicine.

Visit our research blog at sciencelife.uchospitals.edu and our newsroom at uchospitals.edu/news.

Twitter @UChicagoMed, @ScienceLife
Facebook.com/UChicagoMed

University of Chicago Medical Center

Related Evolution Articles:

Genome evolution goes digital
Dr. Alan Herbert from InsideOutBio describes ground-breaking research in a paper published online by Royal Society Open Science.
Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs.
A window into evolution
The C4 cycle supercharges photosynthesis and evolved independently more than 62 times.
Is evolution predictable?
An international team of scientists working with Heliconius butterflies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was faced with a mystery: how do pairs of unrelated butterflies from Peru to Costa Rica evolve nearly the same wing-color patterns over and over again?
Predicting evolution
A new method of 're-barcoding' DNA allows scientists to track rapid evolution in yeast.
Insect evolution: Insect evolution
Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought.
Evolution of aesthetic dentistry
One of the main goals of dental treatment is to mimic teeth and design smiles in the most natural and aesthetic manner, based on the individual and specific needs of the patient.
An evolution in the understanding of evolution
In an open-source research paper, a UVA Engineering professor and her former Ph.D. student share a new, more accurate method for modeling evolutionary change.
Chemical evolution -- One-pot wonder
Before life, there was RNA: Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich show how the four different letters of this genetic alphabet could be created from simple precursor molecules on early Earth -- under the same environmental conditions.
Catching evolution in the act
Researchers have produced some of the first evidence that shows that artificial selection and natural selection act on the same genes, a hypothesis predicted by Charles Darwin in 1859.
More Evolution News and Evolution Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Uncounted
First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.